Skip to main content

SoCal exhibit feels like home

Natural History Museum celebrates San Diego life

By Karla Peterson1:15 p.m.Feb. 20, 2015


One of the great things about being a San Diegan is the wealth of amazing environments that are just a short walk, ride or drive away. Beaches! Mountains! Deserts! All right here!

Unless, of course, you are too busy trying to keep living here to actually enjoy living here. In which case, you owe yourself a visit to the San Diego Natural History Museum, where the new "Coast to Cactus in Southern California" permanent exhibition lets you check out the glories of our beaches, mountains and deserts while also leaving you time to actually visit them.

From the Torrey Pines bluffs to the sands of Anza Borrego, this exhibit was made for you and me. Your tour begins now.

Meet the greeters: How do you know you’ve reached “Coast to Cactus” territory? Just look for the bears at the beach. At the entry of the exhibit, models of a mother grizzly bear and her two frolicking cubs are posed in front of a painted backdrop showing Black’s Beach in the 1920s. The last known San Diego grizzly bear was shot more than 100 years ago, making this tableau the perfect reminder of the wild place San Diego once was and the natural gem it still is. Also, it makes an awesome photo opp.

“It’s amazing,” said Michael Field, exhibits designer at the Natural History Museum. “Everyone who works here has 30 selfies from this spot.”

Lights! Camera! Kangaroo rat! With its many touch screens and interactive opportunities, “Coast to Cactus” has enough bells and whistles to keep the multi-tasking masses off their iStuff for many enriching minutes. Your social-media minions will have to wait.

Best time suck? The mesmerizing time-lapse look at the changing tides at Los Peñasquitos Lagoon. Creepiest soundtrack? The touch-screen guide to bat calls. (Eeeeee!) Most entertaining educational experience? The wall display dedicated to the industrious creatures that live in our mud flats. Mr. Fiddler Crab, we salute you and your babe-magnet claw.

Must-see multimedia? That would be the “Desert at Night” presentation. This ingenious treasure uses animation, fanciful projections and a bilingual skit featuring two kids on a camp-out to show visitors what happens when the desert sun sets and the stars and the scorpions come out. Spoiler alert: the kangaroo rat steals the show.

Beasts with burdens: There are live crayfish in the Canyons and Streams room and living lizards in the Torrey Pines nook. But the most illuminating animal encounters are in the area dedicated to the exhibit’s “Change Over Time” theme, where taxidermy and model animals help illustrate the plight of our endangered and vulnerable creatures, and how the Natural History Museum has helped save them.

The majestic Sonoran pronghorn haven’t roamed our parts since the 1920s, so you should definitely pay your respects to the taxidermy version in the case by the entrance. From there, you can check in on the rare flying squirrel, the endangered California condor and California least tern and the vulnerable burrowing owl. You can also discover how the Nat’s research was instrumental in saving the California brown pelican from extinction.

Take a load off: There are a lot of things about “Coast to Cactus” that make Michael Field a very happy designing man. He is thrilled that the museum’s most-recent remodel uncovered some boarded-up windows and historical skylights. He can’t get enough of the Arts and Crafts style furniture built by Escondido’s Brian Murphy and the tiles based on historical California designs. You will find Brian's work at the whale exhibit.

But mostly, he is thrilled that in addition to expanding the mind, this exhibit will allow visitors to rest their feet.

“When you go to museums all over the world, there are always these benches in the middle of the room that no one sits on. Here, we built the seats to be part of the exhibit.”

For stylish lounging, visit the loft, where you can sit in cushy leather chairs and listen to recordings of everyday locals talking about their favorite San Diego experiences. For retro relaxing, there is the desert exhibit’s Airstream Bambi trailer, which features a cozy dinette setup ideal for perusing the impressive collection of vintage postcards, pickled reptiles and bat photos.

And for the true native experience, head for the urban-canyon patio. There — under a turquoise fiberglass roof that screams, “Tequila Sunrises for everybody!” — you can settle into a classic wooden deck chair and survey the classic SoCal urban jungle diorama at your feet. You can almost smell the eucalyptus trees. Also the skunks and whatever that feral cat is dragging in. Home, sweet home.

The verdict: While many of our museum exhibits are designed to show visitors how smart, cultured and cutting-edge we are, the engaging, inventive “Coast to Cactus” reminds locals that San Diego’s greatest treasures are the ones right under our sunscreened noses.

“We hope people leave thinking we live in an amazing place, and that they’ll fight tooth and nail to keep it,” said Field, who grew up in Clairemont and now lives in La Mesa. “And then we hope they’re going to go out and enjoy it.”